Future Reflections                                                                                           Convention 2004

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Transitions—Reflections of a Blind College Student

by Ryan Strunk

Ryan Strunk
Ryan Strunk

From the Editor: Ryan Strunk, a college student from Lincoln, Nebraska, and a recent NFB scholarship winner, has been the beneficiary of the NFB philosophy from an early age. His mother, Carol, was president of the Nebraska Parents of Blind Children, a division of the NFB of Nebraska, for many years while he was growing up. At the 2003 NFB Convention, Ryan was one of four speakers on the student and parent panel at the NOPBC daylong seminar for parents and teachers. The following article is based upon the remarks he made that day. As you read it, you ought to know that he did not collaborate with Peggy Elliott, our keynote speaker (see Elliott’s speech elsewhere in this issue). Neither of them knew the other was even on the agenda. Nevertheless, if you had any doubts or questions about whether Elliott’s principles of “I can do it” and “It’s up to me,” can be applied in real life, read on. Although Ryan never once uses the phrase, “It’s up to me,” he clearly lives and breathes the principle. Here are Strunk’s reflections on transition from high school to college:

In a recent nationwide survey of blind high school students, participants were asked what three things scared them the most. The top three answers (in no particular order) were as follows: pop quizzes, mom’s meat loaf, and the high school to college transition process. Actually, that’s not true. I just made it up, but judging from the college students I have talked to, I don’t think I’m too far off the mark. If attempted improperly, transition between high school and the secondary education institution can be scarier than any history test or wedge of overdone meat loaf. But if done well, the transition between high school and college can be as painless a process for a blind student as it is for his or her sighted peers.

Over the past several years changes have been made which bring the blind closer to equality with the sighted. However, there is still much to do. Thus the transition process can be just a bit more difficult for the blind than for the sighted. For example, if a sighted individual wishes to buy a textbook for college he or she simply goes to the bookstore and picks up a copy. At the same time, the blind student calls up Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic only to discover that the particular textbook has not been recorded. What then does the blind student do? Well, if the student has received proper training prior to transition from high school to college, the question of what to do next won’t even come up.

So in the next few minutes I would like to reflect about my transition experience and offer a few suggestions for parents and teachers. However, before I start, let me review a basic principle. It is essential that parents and teachers hold blind students to the same standards and give them the same responsibilities as their sighted classmates. The student must be involved in the decisions and choices related to their education. Too often, the temptation to shirk responsibilities because of one’s blindness arises. It is easy for youngsters to succumb to these temptations and it’s too easy for parents and teachers to let it happen—especially in the younger years when good philosophy has not yet had a chance to take root. I even did it myself, more than once, I have to admit.

This principle is important, though. When a student is responsible for all his or her scholastic duties it gives the student a better outlook on blindness and simultaneously says to the world, “I’m blind, so what?” This principle lays the foundation for teaching self-advocacy and is at the core of a good philosophy about blindness and transition.

After this first and most important rule is established, the student can get down to the finer details of independence and self-advocacy. In my university in Lincoln, Nebraska, the disabled students services office recommends that it be the entity in charge of notifying professors that a blind person will soon be attending their classes. Of course, this is one of the suggestions that I don’t adhere to. I’m quite capable of doing the work myself and speaking for myself. It’s my job to explain my blindness and deal with questions and I don’t need or want someone else doing it. Even blind students in grade school are capable of learning to talk to teachers to explain their blindness and the adaptations they need.

When a college, or even high school, student approaches his or her teachers prior to class attendance, several things are accomplished. First, it shows a high degree of responsibility by the student, thereby lending him or her greater credibility in the teacher’s eyes. Second, the student can personally make sure that print materials, packets, syllabi, etc. needed on the first day of class are adapted ahead of time—whether they be given to a Braillist, scanned into a computer, enlarged, or made electronically accessible on a computer disk. Third, this demonstration of preparation and self-advocacy not only makes a student more popular with his or her teachers, but it also helps to insure that the student does not fall behind later in the school year.

When I began high school, I became responsible for ordering all of my own books and materials, much to my chagrin. However, in retrospect, this was a responsibility that benefited me greatly when I made the transition to college. Now, of course, if anyone tells this to my vision teacher I’m going to get a whole lot of I-told-you-so’s—so, if we can keep this our little secret, I’d really appreciate it. Anyway, through the responsibility of ordering my own books I learned how to deal with situations in which the preferred medium was not available. I also learned how to balance needs and preferences against cost. For example, when I was in high school I wanted a particular geometry book in Braille. However, I didn’t learn until after the book was purchased by the school system that the production of this forty-volume monstrosity cost the school more than $17,000—a sum, which, now that I’m in college, I can’t afford to duplicate. I learned that, in certain instances, it is necessary to order a book in a format other than the preferred one. I learned about the choices I had and I learned how to be flexible. A student can try to find a book on tape. A book might be scanned into a computer. In some instances, a student can even purchase the book from the publisher in electronic format and, of course, a reader (that is, another student or other individual) can always be hired.

People have reminded me on more than one occasion that the college disabled student services offices (DSS) can get my books for me. Such statements are usually followed by the question, “So why do you want to order your own books in the first place?” My answer is always the same. First, I have known of more than one student who has been forced to begin class without a book either because the DSS office forgot to order it or was unable to get it. Second, and more important, when a student goes out into the real world, he or she will no longer have DSS or someone else to ensure that all of his or her needs are met. Why not start the training now—while the student is young—and give that individual the necessary skills for success later in life (like on the job)?

Finally, I can think of little that helped me more than my parents’ insistence that I go out, get off my lazy tail, and socialize. If less than one percent of the country’s population is blind, one can pretty much draw the conclusion that interaction with the sighted is inevitable. Every blind student should be given the opportunity and the encouragement to get involved in the world around them as much as any other kid their age. Encourage your kids to try out for sports, join the school band or choir, or even—if they are ambitious enough—to run for student council. Through interaction and socialization, kids learn good communication skills, and statistics show that more than eighty percent of employers feel that good communication is essential in the ideal employee.

Is all of what I have just mentioned absolutely essential? If you ask me nothing could have been more helpful. The life-skills I have acquired because my parents and teachers made me practice them over and over have strengthened my philosophy about blindness, given me the means to take charge of my own destiny, and provided me with the confidence to succeed. Without the training and without the help of my dedicated and loving parents and teachers, I could never be where I am today. So push your kids. Keep them involved. Make them take responsibility for themselves, and tell them to be proud of who they are. If you do all this, the transition process will be so much simpler. Then all you’ll have to worry about is—dating!

It’s been a lot of fun talking to all of you, and maybe I’ll see you in one of my “future reflections.”

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